As you may know from his guest blogs, AJ has had what you might call “difficulties” coming to terms with being a boy trapped in a girl’s body. (“Toy Retreat,” October 8, 2021; “Dinner with Mom and Dad,” December 20, 2021; “Clothes Make the Man-Child,” January 14, 2022; and “Non-Binary Tennis,” August 31, 2022.) The following five guest blogs recount perhaps the most difficult part of that journey–his struggle with body image, food, and the lapse in mental and physical health that made it clear that some critical life decisions were necessary. Here is AJ:
My eating disorders began as a child. I was always an emotional eater and lived out my hedonism via Hostess and Hershey’s and all that good stuff. I’d always eat as many cookies as the parents would allow and drank orange juice (aka, “healthy soda”) by the gallons as well as soda soda whenever I could get my grubby paws on it. Food was one of the places I could get a hit of tasty dopamine and lose myself at the same time. It was sublime to come home after school with a big bag from the bodega of a mix of sweet and savories. Junk food was a friend. I guess I had a killer metabolism at the time and was also, ahem obliged, to play tennis all the time so my activity battled all those snackies. Another metabolism booster was that I picked up the lovely habit of smoking cigarettes somewhere along the way as a teen. Ahhh, another oral fixation to take me away and out of myself. Sorry, I’m not advocating smoking but oh man, it was disgustingly amazing.
But then, as much of the population, I was dropped off at college…and LEFT! Among the very first things that first-year students are required to figure out—besides where the bathrooms are—is how they are going to handle their new independence when it comes to eating and drinking behaviors. I am now a strong advocate for requiring all entering students to take Nutrition and Eating for Oneself 101. (Oh, and also, Financial Literacy 101 in which one would learn all about money management.) It’s so easy and tempting to lose control with Frito-Lay and Froot Loops around. Realization that one no longer has to eat what they don’t want to eat is revolutionary, and potentially belt-loosening or gut-busting. Moreover, vending machines and 7-Elevens present new collegians with cornucopias of “food” laden with fat, salt, and sugar and processed beyond recognition. Also, beers can be chugged ad nauseum (literally).
I, however, being a nervous wreck, ended up taking the opposite route. I still had the palate of a little kid and wanted hamburgers with fries and broccoli all the time (at least the broccoli was healthy). Sauces that weren’t fire engine red like ketchup or Prego were to be feared. I wasn’t eager to experiment with food when it was presented. Alternate versions, unfamiliar offerings, or unidentifiable foods weren’t appetizing. At this New England school, for example, there was a lot of mystery fish. I had eaten fish sticks and canned tuna fish in my previous life but that was it (not even the Fillet-O-Fish sandwich at McDonalds…not that that doesn’t count as mystery fish). Here, on the other hand, was a fish called “scrod.” Surely that was a joke. What kind of stupid fish, or stupid anything, is named “scrod”? In any event, I was overwhelmed trying to remember how to get to class and where to go to the bathroom at any given moment. So, naturally enough, I stopped eating regularly-scheduled meals.
I wasn’t playing tennis multiple times a week; I wasn’t walking around Brooklyn; I wasn’t doing anything to keep my muscles intact, so they atrophied. It was a slow process that I didn’t even notice because I didn’t know atrophy was a thing! I always had a pretty static body comp so why would it ever change? I also didn’t like to think or look at my body because as a transgender person, I HATED my body and never wanted to think or deal with it. So, I just went on smoking and drinking Coke, which, along with ramen noodles and potato chips, had become my main source of nutrition (I use the term loosely). You’d think I would have learned that basic nutrition needed attention…eventually I did when I got so unhealthy I literally got sick. Yup, I got mononucleosis and not the fun kissing kind; just the lacking nutrition kind, sigh.
I have graduated. I’m technically an adult. I’m working. I’m living alone, but I am trying hard to become a social being…you know, going out with friends and exploring life a bit. But my relationship with food continued to be a ticking time bomb. Restaurant food always meant larger portions, alcohol, and fried things. And at home, well, I never ate an organized plate of food, only a mishmash of whatever I had around, standing up in the kitchen, arms flailing toward a cabinet or the fridge door and back again grabbing for more and only stopping when I was beyond full and tired of eating. I might go to the trouble to cook chicken or tilapia (surprisingly healthy lean proteins)—while intermittently grazing on other items—pour ketchup on the protein, eat it and then do the process all over again because I wanted more, more, more even though I didn’t even think, know, or care if I was hungry. Veggies were scarce and fruit was nonexistent. As they tend to do, all those calories added up, especially since everything seemed to end up doused in ketchup.
Not surprisingly, due to my Henry VIII-ian ways in food consumption, I easily packed on an additional 20 pounds. This was not good. Looking at the reflection of myself in my now too-tight clothes was not a pretty sight. And I say “pretty” because the snugness of the clothes made me more identifiable as a woman with curves and soft spots. My one body blessing had been that I didn’t have a womanly woman figure; I was not curvaceous nor endowed with a big chest. My hips weren’t noticeable, and my waist was relatively straight up and down like a guy’s. But with this added weight my womanly figure started to make herself known. Let’s face it: I was a plump, chonky female…my inner-dude was weeping. I had always liked being lean and looking as physically male as possible, but all of a sudden, I was looking doughy, soft, and…feminine.
When finally even a doctor said that my cholesterol was high and that I was not all that fit, it seemed time to stop wallowing in misery, candy, and ketchup and to take control of myself. The second ginormous shock came on the day I went down into plank position to do a pushup. I went down but couldn’t come back up no matter how I struggled. I had never not been able to do a pushup, and being able to do them always signaled self-sufficiency and masculinity to me. Men were expected to be able to do pushups, even if women were not. That I had grown too heavy and/or had become too weak to accomplish a single pushup was a blow to my masculine ego. To find that I couldn’t lift my weight off the floor made me feel like a floppy, flabby seal.
This new feminine look was simply not me. I needed my boyish figure back!
In Sesame Street-ese, my letter for the year became E. E as in “Eating” and E as in “Exercising.” In my mind now Eating was to be forever deemed E as in “Evil.” And Exercising became E as in “Extreme.” All effort went into exercise in order to mold, erase, and punish my body. Given my personality, it wasn’t hard for me to overdo it. I stopped going out with friends, and instead came home every evening after work to exercise. Not being able to do that single pushup had been emotionally distressing. But now I had a physical challenge and a goal to reach. I felt purposeful and less lost. It took quite a while for me to again be able to do a full plank pushup, but the build-up process was wonderfully satisfying. I incrementally increased the goal: do 5; now do 10; ok, do 15; 20; now do 2 sets of 20.
As exercising ramped up, eating had to be curtailed. I didn’t want to feed the hedonist anymore. She had been eating too much dough and spending too much of it, too. I wanted to put a stop to my self-indulgent eating and spending habits. Such hedonistic behavior needed to be punished. Nothing good had come of it. Pretty soon my obsession with [not] eating and [not] spending money joined my obsession with working out. So I started punishing myself on an extreme dieting and budgeting bender while working out incessantly. I was putting my life in order. Yeah, right.
Continued October 12)